Ridgeway Rehabilitation

By Harrison County Heritage Council

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This looker here is called Ridgeway aka the "Handy House." It is a 200 year old house located in Cynthiana, KY whose life is hanging by a thread. Currently, it is owned jointly by the city and county governments who feel that this historic house is getting in the way of their park development dreams. At one point, there was even a plan to put a pool where the house now stands! Mind you, Ridgeway sits high a top a hill, isolated from the playground, gazebos, ~120 acres of empty land and soccer fields below.

The local government, specifically the fiscal court, have hinted they would change their minds about demolition if there are actual funds and a plan to restore the house. This has been an 11 year fight to save this house (the house is almost famous for the ridiculously long fight over its status). Due to decades of poor maintenance and neglect it will take more money than it would have previously. The plan is in place, but the funds are not. FORTUNATELY, THIS IS WHERE YOU ALL COME IN!!

This house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to its architectural, local, state, and national importance. It is also listed as one of the eleven most endangered historical sites in 2015 by the Bluegrass Trust Group.  Here is how important the house is:

This former home of U.S. Congressman and War of 1812 Veteran, Colonel William Brown, sits at the top of a hill in the 'new' Flat Run Veterans Park off Oddville Pike, heading out of Cynthiana. The park has existed for nearly ten years, but it remains unfinished, and the local population has been divided on what to do with this structurally sound, but cosmetically challenged historic treasure.

The history of the house is quite remarkable. The original owner was U.S. Congressman and War of 1812 Veteran, Colonel William Brown. He was an attorney and close friend of Henry Clay. Both served in the 16th Congress, which established the Missouri Compromise. He was one of the rare politicians from Kentucky who were actually elected to their position in Congress in the early 1800s. Colonel Brown's wife, Harriet Warfield, was the sister of Lexington's (KY) Dr. Elisha Warfield. He is well known as the owner of the famed racehorse Lexington and as the physician who delivered Mary Todd Lincoln.

Thus began the Brown family's connection to the Todd/Lincoln families. As Kentuckians migrated west, many families moved into the Illinois territory. At this time, Colonel Brown was also leaning toward an anti-slavery stance, despite owning 30 slaves at Ridgeway. As he relocated his family, he freed his slaves and brought a few of them along to work as employed free men. The sons and nephew of the Colonel got caught up in the Black Hawk War and fought alongside another new Kentucky emigrant, Abraham Lincoln. The comrades in arms formed long lasting friendships, and Lincoln accompanied the Brown family men back to their new property to help clear it after the war, alongside Ridgeway's former slaves.

As the years went by, evidence of Lincoln's friendship with this family can be found in many ways.

When Lincoln was running for office for the first time in 1858, he wrote to the Colonel's son (Capt. James N. Brown), assuring him of his stance on slavery:

"I believe the declara[tion] that 'all men are created equal' is the great fundamental principle upon which our free institutions rest."

After Lincoln's assassination, James was personally selected by Mary Todd Lincoln to serve as one of Abraham's pall bearers on the final leg of the body's journey in Springfield. James' children are buried at Ridgeway, and the stones have been broken off and carried into the foyer of the house.

The Colonel's nephew, Orville Hickman Browning, another Cynthiana native and resident of Ridgeway, studied the law at the house with his Uncle. Browning became one of Lincoln's closest friends, and was later appointed U.S. Secretary of the Interior by President Johnson. When Abraham and Mary lost their son Willie, the Brownings were called to the White House to handle the funeral arrangements and to comfort Mary. It was to Browning in 1861 that Lincoln penned the famous line:

"I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game."

After the Brown family finally sold the farm to Dr. Frazer, Ridgeway had many chapters of historical importance. Here is a timeline of known events:

  • Since farm purchase in 1794, agriculture has been a constant force in the prosperity of Ridgeway
  • House built in 1817/1818 based on tax records
  • Plantation home to over 30 slaves leading up to the Civil War
  • Several of those slaves emancipated by the Brown family as they migrated to Illinois in 1832
  • Dr. Frazer continued the enslavement of individuals while supporting the Union
  • Civil War: farm part of Union Camp Frazer from 1861 through 1862. Camp was destroyed by Gen. Morgan during Battles of Cynthiana
  • William T. Handy turns a portion of the farm into a training area for his famous trotting horses
  • Mr. Handy names the house Chestnut Hall
  • After Mr. Handy’s death in the early 20th century, the house becomes known as the Handy House, and is transformed into a farmer's co-op, with many families calling it home
  • 2002: Purchased by the City of Cynthiana and Harrison County to form the Flat Run Veterans Park
  • 2005: Included on the National Register of Historic Places

     The Harrison County Heritage Council so desperately wants to ends this fight before we make it to year 12. The hope is to adapt the house for a three-fold use: a community center that will provide various community services and events, summer camps, and diversion activities for the youth; an event venue for professional and personal events; and an interpretive history learning center concerning the house's civil war importance, slavery, local history, and its involvement the horse industry.